Tag Archives: music fans

To Be a Life-Long Listener

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In education we often bandy about one of our most sincere hopes for our students and aspirations for ourselves, to be life-long learners. I’m a huge fan of this concept. I never want to be complacent about my learning, about expanding the horizons of my brainiac: I want to read new things, write new things, challenge myself as a reader and writer, learn new artistic expressions, consistently enrich my teaching practice, grow and expand my relationships with others and the planet, become more efficacious emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and become increasingly aware of new knowledge, generally speaking, on a wide range of subject matter. But lately, as I get more and more old-agey, I’ve been thinking of one other kind of life-long learning I want to hold on to, the practice of being a life-long listener of music, not just of the things that I grew up with and that had the most impact on my formative years, but to be intentional and conscious of never letting go of the habit of seeking out what’s new, what’s different, what’s around the corner, what I’ve missed. I’ve managed to keep this practice alive, with near nary a lull, all of my life now, since the grade-school aged me started collecting records. It is a habit that sustains me, a habit I find difficult, and have no interest in breaking. It is a significant part of who I am.

I know musicians and music fans, while still active listeners or performers of music, who have no interest in listening to new music, have no knowledge or experience about contemporary music–especially in the rock/pop genre. They’re either still listening to the soundtrack of their youths, or they limit their listening interests to new interpretations or performances of classical and orchestral music, or, if they’re not doing these things, they just simply don’t listen recreationally at all. I don’t understand these people. I don’t judge them. I’m sure they have perfectly good reasons for these habits, and I respect that. I just know that if it were true of me–it would make me excessively sad.

I’ve said this before, and other people have said it too, perhaps more eloquently, that music acts like a kind of photo album, the way music can stir memories, very vivid memories of the times and places and emotions of our lives. When I listen to The Beatles and The Monkees, I’m a child again; when I listen to early Rush, I’m in 7th and 8th grade; my favorite new wave bands take me straight to my high school years; Thomas Dolby’s records take me through college and XTC took me all the way from a junior in high school to an adult with a teaching career–I mean, you get the picture. I like to think that when I’m 70, I’ll be listening to records by St. Vincent and The Dear Hunter, and I’ll be reliving my 50’s! And then, I hope, as a 70 year old man, I’ll be making the trek to the record store (if such things still exist) to grab the new album by one of the bands I discovered in my 60’s, or a band or songwriter I’ve just discovered. For my 70th birthday I’ll ask my family to gift me the new record by Insert Groovy Band Name Here, and I will be happy as a schoolboy to receive it. And I have become exceedingly jazzed lately to be introduced to new music by my son, 14, who, in the digital age, far from developing the collector’s aesthetic, is still super enthusiastic about the music he loves, recently turning me on to Joji and Bill Wurtz. That’s the shiznit. To be a life-long listener.

 

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Thank You, Neil

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Somewhat unusually, I think, because it wasn’t a huge hit, the first album I heard from Rush was the debut, the only Rush record without a Neil Peart on the drums. My brother had it, and during those days, as young as I was, my brothers’ and my sister’s records just seemed to BE there. I had zero understanding about why they bought the records they bought, where and when they bought them, and how they got turned on to certain artists in the first place. But my brothers’ and sister’s record collections were my earliest music education. I got my pop education from my sister (The Monkees, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, Herman’s Hermits), and I got my rock education from my brothers (Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors). And then the first Rush album made its way into my brother David’s collection. I was 10 years old. I remember, if not falling in love with it, liking it almost at first listen and listening to it repeatedly when I was with my brother. I think he had already, at 20, an apartment of his own. He was an adult and was listening to music for adults and whenever I would visit him, part of what we’d do would be to listen to music. This record was raw, energetic, and gutsy. Sure, a little like Zeppelin but distinct enough to make it seem new and original to me. Almost simultaneously, I think, I had grade school buddies whose older siblings were playing in rock bands, and when invited to listen to them rehearse, I heard for the first time young musicians covering “Working Man” and “What You’re Doing” from that first Rush album. A glorious confluence of experiences that ultimately and magically transformed my little brain into the brain of a musician.

It was about this time in my life, as I began to blossom as an avid music listener, when my Dad started to allow me to order records from his Columbia House record club. I had officially caught the record collecting bug. Eventually, becoming too impatient to wait for the package in the mail and having the first money of my own in the form of a weekly allowance, I started making the foray to the local record shop within walking distance of my suburban home. I know with some certainty that the first record I ever bought with my own money was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and then, shortly after that, not Rush’s second album, but their third, Caress of Steel. It was the first Rush album I bought with my own money. I was a junior high kid by then, maybe 12 years old, and I was listening to Neil Peart’s drumming for the first time.

I had been drumming already for awhile. I think I got my first drum kit when I was in the sixth grade. It was cheap and shitty, but I played enough and listened carefully enough that in pretty short order I was playing along to a lot of my favorite records. I could play along to almost any Kiss song, not expertly, but passably. The most challenging thing Peter Criss ever did was probably the “Detroit Rock City” groove and I’m pretty sure it would be awhile before I could pull that off, but even as a 12 year old I could tell you that there was nothing especially inventive or interesting about the drum solo on Kiss Alive. It was boring and pedestrian–but for a 12 year old behind his first drum kit, it was super exciting (if not easy) to ape.  This drumming on Rush’s Caress of Steel was a different thing altogether. There were breaks. There were odd time signatures. This was a really big drum set, maybe the first double-bass drum kit I had ever seen. Here was a song that was 13 minutes long or 20 minutes long. There were dynamics. And there were these fills that just seemed superhuman. And Peart’s lyrics: they fueled my young imagination unlike anything I had ever read in school and unlike any other song lyrics I had ever heard. So listening to Neil Peart was doing some magical stuff to my pre-teen brain–not only was it turning me into a more sophisticated listener and exponentially raising the bar for me of what great drumming was about, but it was pushing my literacy forward. As a twelve year old, I began writing what I thought was serious fiction. I wrote a novel inspired by a song on Caress of Steel called The Necromancer! I think I still have that thing in a box somewhere in the basement. I’m sure it’s terrible, but whatever inspired a twelve year old boy to handwrite hundreds of pages of bad fiction must have been pretty great.

I fell a little out of love with Rush in the 80’s when I became consumed by the new wave movement, and in the 90’s I came to think of them, especially in the lyric department, as kind of a silly band. They were just too earnest, too serious, never ironic, kind of precious, and sometimes pedantic. But in the last five or six years, as the seminal records that were so much a part of my growing up turn 40 years old (2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres), I’ve started listening again. I’ve come full circle. The things I was critical about become the things I most admire and respect about them. They’re great sounding, exciting records. I don’t listen to them every week or even every month, but when I do revisit these records several times over the course of a year, and as a result of learning about Neil Peart’s passing, all this past weekend, I rediscover their greatness and am reminded that, even though there have been other musicians whose music has better withstood the test of time for me, Neil Peart’s drumming and writing, more than any other musical figure, had a most monumental influence on my life.

Thank you, Neil.

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#15: Weeping At Rock Shows

Weeping At Rock Shows

I’ve done it.
I have allowed myself
to weep at rock shows.
Usually, I’m alone,
anonymous in a crowd,
no social obligations,
no company to keep,
and I am moved
by the music.
There’s an upswell
that begins in the chest
and travels up through
the throat, the eyes
water–enough,  perhaps,
that a hand is required
to wipe away the wet,
not out of embarrassment
(no one sees me, no one notices)
but so that I can see the band.

A recent development,
I didn’t do this in my teens,
in my twenties, or thirties even.
Only now, squarely middle aged,
while I still love to “rock,” as they say,
do I find myself at shows alone,
only now am I touched by melody,
by certain moves of virtuosity,
by the emotional crescendo
of an artist I love,
and even if the music is sad,
I am not sad, but joyful.

I don’t know what it means
and I’m not worried.
It would not be a stretch
to say that I have learned
to listen, to breathe in my medium
more deeply than ever I could before,
to disappear in a crowd and
become part of something whole,
that finally, I am grateful and glad
to be weeping at rock shows.

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Only A Bad Dream: Record Store Paradise Lost

I had a nightmare last night that Music Millennium, the oldest independent record store in Portland, closed its doors, and I wandered around the store weeping while the employees packed everything into boxes. It was a terrible, suffocating dream, vivid, emotionally as real as they come. You know the kind, one of those night time visions from which it takes a few moments to recover and about which you have to convince yourself: it was only a bad dream.

I was wondering about the origin of this night terror, hence, an inquiry that began a blog entry.

There are a few independent record stores in Portland but you have to go downtown or into city neighborhoods. I grew up in the suburbs, in Milwaukie, Oregon, and as a child and all the way through my teens there were two decent record stores within walking distance of my house. The first one went under about the time I started high school, is now the office of a used car lot, and the other lasted almost all the way through my teens, finally failed, and became in short order an adult video and sex-toy shop. That porno establishment is still going after more than 25 years, but there’s no music to be had anywhere in my old neighborhood (once again my neighborhood of residence), save for the electronics section of Fred Meyer’s Grocery or the few titles available at the local Starbucks. So, I make the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, sometimes weekly trek to Music Millennium, a twenty-five minute drive from my home, to shop for music. It’s food. It must be done. And while I order something on-line from time to time and download a bit every month, I always feel a little bit lazy and stupid when I do–unless I’m buying directly from the artist or from an independent label. So I have to work harder for new music. I have to travel.

I know that Music Millennium has had a rough time of it. There used to be two stores, one of which had a great stage for live music. Now there’s only one, the original, and it’s been in business for nearly 40 years, and it’s had to diversify, I understand, to make it. They do compact discs and record albums of course, and they have a massive selection, but they also sell dvds and books and classic toys and candy and games and  t-shirts and you can even buy a turntable there. Whatever, I say, it’s all good, and it all  has this power of recapturing the heyday of the vinyl record album, replete with incense aroma record store smell and great rock art everywhere; it’s a music fan paradise. Music Millennium is still in business and shows no signs of going under.  I hope it lasts forever.  But I worry, still, not just about this incredible store, but others like it in my town, all over the nation and the world.  And I worry not only about these great businesses, but maybe more so about the experience of music listening itself losing much of its vitality and richness.

It seems obvious that the artifact of the record album, despite its medium, digital or analog, is an endangered species and will ultimately become extinct and maybe soon.  This revolutionary fact that you can hold 40,000 songs on a device that fits in the palm of your hand makes compact discs and even more so the vinyl record album unwieldy, clumsy, inefficient things.  And the quality of the digital download has the potential to outshine the compact disc. So who’s complaining? What’s wrong with any of that?

First, the record album, the long-play record album, is a work of art worthy of preserving, and is at risk altogether when the practice of most music consumers nowadays is to download one song at a time, to pick and choose, to shuffle, rarely if ever to listen to a unified grouping of songs.  The record albums I loved growing up, and still love, are ones conceived, or at least understood, as one continuous whole–rather than a random collection of songs.  Think of The White Album, or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or The Wall, or Skylarking. These albums gave the listener a sustained experience, told a story, required our full attention, and the brevity of one side of a vinyl record in particular prevented us from mindless multi-tasking.

There’s a tactile experience, too, that goes missing without the music artifact. Vinyl records and their covers had a smell, all that cardboard and ink.  And you had to manipulate them physically, wrestling them out of their 12×12 houses, delicately pulling the record out of its sleeve with the tips of your fingers, careful not to muck up the first track, holding it gingerly between the two palms of your hands, gently setting it down on the turntable, selecting the correct speed, setting the platter into motion, admiring the shape of the individual tracks as they spun–yes, you could see this music!  And finally you set the needle down in the lovely and generous black space before the first song.  The pop of the landing.  The anticipation of the first note, beat, chord, word.  The reward.  Only some of this is maintained by the compact disc, a decisively inferior tactile experience–but we initially forgave that as we fell in love with this flashy new medium and believed at least we were getting superior audio quality even if we weren’t really.  But CD sales are way down and vinyl sales, even though there’s a whole bucket-load more of it than there was, say, a decade ago, belongs to a decidedly niche market, a niche market that seems to be stubbornly holding on, as I  notice that most new music I care about today is being released on vinyl.  It’s a tactile experience that true music fans are loathe to let go–and it’s not just nostalgia, truly.  The physical experience was part of the whole–an integral part, I think, that completely disappears with your iPod.

Next, the new portability of music allows us unrestricted, almost continuous, if we so choose, usage–which, in my mind anyway, devalues it, depreciates it.  We can, after all, listen to our favorite song while using a public restroom.  We used to have to make time for music.  One of my colleagues and I recently discussed how, as kids, we’d get up early so that we could listen to music before school. After school listening parties were daily rituals, even if they were parties of one. And unless you were lucky enough to have a stereo in your room, you also had to time your listening around the schedules of mom and dad. When you could get it, the time to listen was precious.  Today we are surrounded by it as often as we can stand it, and most of us stand it or desire it at least so much of the time that we really don’t know what it’s like often NOT to be listening, or watching, or looking at a screen. We develop a love and true appreciation for music, perhaps, only when we know what NOT having it is like.  I’m just throwing that out there.

This blog entry has become tiresome and long.  Let me conclude.

I don’t think there’s anything prescient about my nightmare: I am optimistic about the survival of Music Millennium.  It may, however, in a decade or less, be the only survivor in my town.  I feel bad for young people who claim to be music lovers who have never set foot in a real record store–either because they don’t know what such animals are, or because they can’t drive 25 minutes or an hour down the road to find one.  I’ve taught my son the joys and responsibilities of the record album. I’ve started buying vinyl again when I can afford it, not out of nostalgia, but in order to recapture the full experience of music listening.  I give myself permission to sit in a chair through the length of an entire record or two.  It’s rewarding.  It’s replenishing.  It provides a momentary continuity in the midst of all of the other noise in our daily battle with a thousand and one distractions.

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